Pick up your tool


Dear Artist,

A friend of a friend phoned this morning and said, “Don’t waste my time Bob — what’s your all-time best tip?” I had to put down my brush for that one. I used to think it was “Keep busy while you’re waiting for something to happen.” After some thought I realized I had honed the advice further: “Pick up your tool,” I told him.


It’s been my observation that pretty well all growth, success and creative happiness are based on the discovery and exploitation of our tools. Some tools, tried and true, come back and are used again to new advantage. Still others are out there to be discovered. Here, necessity is often the mother of invention. It’s the instrument itself that cranks up the creative process. Some tools are mighty humble. I once watched a Hungarian artist by the name of Andre Szasz using crumpled newspapers to remove dark oil paint in degree from a light shiny ground and creating remarkably modelled figures. The use of that odd tool took him right into his unique and satisfying process.

Recently I wrote to you from an island. Out there I was sometimes using a small paint-box loaded with little plastic bottles of liquid acrylic. I fitted a dozen or so with cone-shaped tops — the sort of instruments women use to touch up the roots of their hair. Craftspeople know all about these things. They give a three-dimensional line and invite a cursive, fluid stroke. When they get blocked you poke them with a nail. They keep the ideas fresh, help with the design, and above all, they’re speedy. I brought the bottle-made sketches back into the cabin during a storm and worked into them. What a tool, I thought.

So I’m telling the friend of my friend that I don’t mean for him to pick up my particular tool. I’m telling him that we all need to find and hold the tools that will become our partners. “Take that tool in your hand and let it discover your joy. That’s my all-time best tip,” I say. He hangs up. Maybe that was his best tip, too.

Best regards,


PS: “It is vain for painters to endeavor to invent without materials with which the mind may work.” (Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Esoterica: Did you ever stop to think that it’s only when you have a tool in your hand that you can get proficient at doing something? Without a tool you can talk about it, dream about it, regret about it, and that’s just about all you can do about it.

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


What’s an artist?
by Gerten Basom, Ancaster, Ontario, Canada

To quote Frederick Franck (The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as meditation): “Being an artist does not mean covering clean piles of paper or canvas with ink or pigment. It does not mean solo exhibitions or prizes. It definitely does not mean labelling ourselves an artist. Art is neither a profession nor a hobby. Art is a Way of Being.” While a good, fine sable brush or an excellent quality watercolour paper or printing paper can be pure heaven to work with… so can mud and sticks. Just enjoy.


Good things come while in the process
by Linda Muttitt

Your letter was about grabbing the moment and taking hold of whatever you need to begin the process of creating. For many years with my watercolour I would wait for an inspirational moment to come before I started into painting. That works to some extent, but the best painting ideas seemed to come while I was in the process of painting a different one. Like exercise I suppose, one serves as the warm-up and prepares your creative body to be flexible, powerful and perhaps courageous, once the muscles are warm and readied. Isn’t it amazing how hard it is sometimes to pick up that brush!


Microwave dish
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany

It doesn’t matter what I’m doing in the way of painting or drawing. At the latest after five minutes my fingers seem to take over. They are in a permanently discolored state and I constantly have to go round cleaning up light switches, door handles and the like. I’m not really conscious of the moment when I throw down the brush or chalk and start dabbling. But it invariably happens, and often solves problems I hadn’t even been aware of until I “laid hands on.” Another marvelous tool is my airtight microwave dish. It has 3 compartments (meant for meat and 2 vegetables) and a tight-fitting lid (which has to be taken off before cooking, if that’s what you are using it for). It is the most brilliant tool for acrylic painting, as the colours keep moist for days, if not weeks, under the tight lid.


Stuff as tools
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil

I made sweet little elaborate pictures of my garden, I painted bloody violent, frightening, negative acrylics of wounded rugby players, I drew long sinewy ladies on the beach, I copied impressionists, I went to museums, I painted Hockney pools and Johns flags, I did the lot. I went back into the kitchen and made up things with paper mache pulp, string, wire and gesso. I made an empty evening dress out of chicken wire; a paper mache Venus with no feet; a tangled copper wire sphere; and from there I went on to make lots of paper mache vessels, lots of them, very simple, sober, improbable, whimsical, and comical things, on the surface of which I rub and splash, collage and sculpt. This whole process has spiraled to the point where I have no space to move in the midst of all these moulds, pots, pans, beach balls, bags of feathers, beads, strings, cloth, paper making equipment and what have you.


Explore old tools
by Bruce Meisterman

Exploit our tools? Absolutely! Joyously! And with everything we can. Coming back from an appointment, I was thinking about some processes I was doing. I was implementing them correctly but I saw this as limiting the potential. It got me to thinking about how we can also explore our old and familiar tools bringing new life into our work. While we may intellectually understand the processes we engage, have we explored their potential and exploited them? For me, the answer was no and here is yet another growth spurt in which to learn. It is all too easy to achieve an internal smugness about how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, and that now we understand it. I’m understanding less and less. And as I learn that, it frees me to grow further.


Unique tool
by Karen Cole, Santa Fe, NM, USA

While talking to a man in my art booth last weekend, he said, “How do you get such fluid strokes? Have you any sumi brushes? I took a sumi brush art class and learned how to make those strokes.” As I sit here painting and using my unique tool which is a Q-tip, I have to laugh.


“Wannabe” painter
by Lainey

This letter makes me realize that I am a “wannabe” painter. I am the type who talks more than paints, not organizing my time to make the time. I have many good excuses, but I love, really love, painting. It transports me. I see potential in all I look at, from the colours and shapes in gardens to movies, to being close up to the blankets in the morning. Everything yearns to be painted and I need to, as you suggest, pick up that tool! Thanks for the reminder. Must dash, gotta paint!


Too many dealers, not enough art
Name withheld by request

I have some questions regarding dealing with agents and galleries. Things are going well for me and more galleries and dealers are interested in my work. At the moment my studio is pretty much empty having just delivered work for various exhibitions, I have since had more inquiries from other agents about works available and do not want to have to tell them I have nothing available at present. Is it acceptable for me to send images of the works available at other galleries… if one gallery is not selling well and an agent has interest in a painting committed to that gallery, is it ethical to try and sell the piece through the agent? What happens commission wise? This is all a learning curve for me, I do know that I would rather have good agents and galleries doing the selling and I do not begrudge paying their commission… I want it to be fair all round…but I do need to sell paintings.

(RG note) It’s good to remember that works of art are your property until they actually go into the hands of a buyer. I believe in letting dealers have only what you can actually deliver. Give your dealers a fair time to do something with them. Months, if possible. There will always be situations where some dealers are selling better than others. If dealers have customers for paintings they don’t actually have on consignment, then it’s their business to make a deal with the ones who do. Commissions are generally split 50/50 between dealers doing this—and this action does not effect the monies remitted to the artist. Since the advent of the internet there is more empowerment for both the artist and the end collector, and while this in the long run is desirable, it’s good to be aware that a few dealers are proxy — representing anything they can find on the net or think they can get.


by Linda Wadley


“Grass at Tabolt Lake”
by Linda Wadley

I have just received a strange phone call. A beginner artist from the local art club has been commissioned to copy one of my works. The painting is one that I painted on location in the mountains and it has sold for a very good price. It’s shown on my website. What would you say to her and what are the copyright laws?

(RG note) Faced with a similar problem, A Y Jackson said, “Those who follow are always behind.” That’s the price those folks have to pay. Please refer to the response “Copyright problem” in the letter Foreground dyslexia. In this my friend Joe Blodgett gives a particularly scintillating answer to the nagging problem.


Contest entries

The following are a few more of the 400 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany with Robert Genn” contest.


oil painting by Anne McCormick

Kristine-Amodeo-The-Ocean-of-Light I

“The Ocean of Light I”
by Kristine L Amodeo, Sonora, CA









“St. Petersburg, Russia”
by William Turkington


by Shirley Flinn










“From the Bridge at Phoenix Lake”
by Yvonne Novak


“It takes two to mango”
by Kathleen McCallum









“SNOWBOWL, The Skyline Trail, Jasper N.P”
by Alice Saltiel-Marshall


“Window in Safed”
w/c and acrylic by Myra Mandel, Israel








You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Carol Lyons of Irvington NY who says her all-time best tip is KISS (Keep it simple stupid).

And Murilo Pereira of Brazil who writes, “Like Gauguin, I started trying to become professional artist when I was 37, and didn’t catch it, not the way I dream about, anyway.”


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